You never know how the day will turn out. Sometimes you make peace with a former rival, and sometimes you stab a stranger in the shoulder. Sometimes you sing a Tom Petty song by a river, and sometimes you find widsom in a Porta Potty.
That's how it goes in the astonishing second season of Reservation Dogs, the FX series about four indigenous teenagers on an Oklahoma reservation. Or that's the set-up, anyway. As it's gone on, the show has moved beyond that quartet to ecompass an entire community of working class people trying their best to live decent lives in spite of their dead-end jobs and broken hearts.
To that end, the new episodes are often devastating. In the season opener, which streams August 3 on Hulu, Elora (Devery Jacobs) has left the rez for California, but she's still haunted by visions of her dead friend Daniel. Meanwhile, the folks she left back home are coming apart in different ways: her best friend Bear (D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai) is furious that she left without him, her grandma's health is declining, and her pal Willie Jack (Paulina Alexis) is convinced a white man has put a curse on all her enemies.
The show takes these problems seriously, and that care results in heart-rending scenes. After working a construction job in near silence, for instance, Bear and Daniel's father sit on a rooftop and have a frank conversation about their grief, with Woon-A-Tai capturing the raw emotion of a seventeen year-old boy trying to process the unthinkable things he's endured. Similarly, when she's on the road with Jackie (Elva Guerra), her rival turned fellow rez escapee, Elora breaks down at the memory of finding Daniel's body. And Jackie, so hard and so guarded, reacts with compassion that may leave viewers in tears.
There are so many of these stirring moments in the four episodes screened for critics that it's tempting to declare Reservation Dogs the year's best drama. But that would overlook all the lunacy, like Spirit (Dallas Goldtooth), the warrior ghost that hangs around the rez, sitting in a portable toilet eating an apple while he gives Bear life advice. Or the camera panning across the graffiti in that toilet, which would make a convict blush. Or rez elders Brownie (Gary Farmer) and Bucky (Wes Studi) praying to lift Willie Jack's curse, before telling the Creator what a jerk the other guy is.
This season's jokes land harder because just like the sad scenes, they're rooted in characters we've spent so much time getting to know. When Cheese (Lane Factor) makes a thoughtful comment about the director's cut of Big Trouble in Little China, we can laugh because of course he's going to philosophize about a Kurt Russell movie. When Bear decides that driving a pickup truck for two minutes makes him a badass, we can cackle at his ever-present teenage foolishness.
None of these gags are less funny because they're so close to tragedy, any more than the show's spiritual streak, filled with ghosts and curses and magic that actually works, is less profound because it affects characters who drink cheap beer in the middle of the day. In fact, it's precisely this collision of the high and low, the sacred and profane that makes the show so wonderful. Reservation Dogs knows that you can laugh at a funeral or cry when your ship comes in. It knows that life is always a little bit of everything, all at once.
Reservation Dogs Season 2 premieres on Hulu August 3. New episodes follow every Wednesday through September 28th.
Mark Blankenship is Primetimer's Reviews Editor. Tweet him at @IAmBlankenship.